The beefed-up MINI Countryman JCW SUV gets all the sporty touches, but it has its limitations.
When MINI launched its most controversial model to date, the Countryman SUV, in 2010, die-hard MINI fans might not have been impressed. Yet more than a decade later the Countryman is part of the fabric of the brand; so much so, in fact, that this second-generation version has been updated to keep its appeal against an ever-growing number of rivals, including the Volkswagen T-Roc and Audi Q2, SUVs that offer a more premium image.
This is our first chance to sample the updated model, tested here in John Cooper Works form. This performance SUV sits at the top of the tree, with the Countryman line-up receiving some styling updates that include a redesigned grille and front bumper. LED headlights are standard.
The rear bumper is new, too, and houses fatter tailpipes, while the Countryman adopts MINI’s Union Flag tail-light design, adding even more personality to an SUV already popping with little styling flourishes.
Inside, the tech has been upgraded, with a new five-inch digital instrument panel that’s carried over from the MINI Electric.
But the Countryman JCW is decidedly a combustion-only model, and uses the most powerful engine ever fitted to a production- series MINI. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder unit that produces 225kW and a healthy 450Nm of torque. It sends that drive to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and thanks to the added traction the ALL4 system brings (a Torsen differential on the front axle is standard, too), 0-100kmh takes 5.1 seconds.
While the design might be bursting with character, the same can’t be said of the engine. In Sport mode the amplified sound drones, but even the engine’s natural soundtrack isn’t the most appealing noise.
That broad spread of torque does at least give good flexibility and therefore deceptive pace, but you’ll never feel urged to rev it out.
The gearbox is a willing partner, doing its best to shift quickly, but in manual mode the changes can sometimes be a little snatchy, causing an unusual pause and a jerk as drive is momentarily cut and then resumes. Yet as an auto it slurs changes sweetly, making the most of the torque by shifting up early to keep progress relaxed.
But that’s not something you can exactly say of the ride. Our car had optional 19-inch alloys, and while the ride is firm, it’s far from harsh in the way the chassis reacts to bumps. Yet it controls the Countryman JCW’s 1,675kg kerbweight tautly, so you do feel imperfections like cats’ eyes and manhole covers with more detail than you might want.
However, this sharp control combines with pointy steering to give the Countryman JCW the level of agility we’ve come to expect from a hot MINI, no matter its size or shape.
This is where the brand’s fun factor comes in, because on country roads it no longer feels like a small SUV, but more like a conventional hot hatch, and that’s a compliment. It’s grippy, and changes direction well, so you can enjoy driving the Countryman JCW. Yet the car does have its limitations. It’s an SUV first and a hot model second, and while the 450 litres of boot space beats rivals like the VW T-Roc R the MINI isn’t quite as versatile as similarly priced SUVs such as the Cupra Ateca.
Rear legroom is okay, while the car’s lofty roofline means decent headroom. But the cabin is starting to look a little old now, despite a few extra tech touches. Material quality is mostly good, but the general design feels like it could do with a refresh.
Top-spec JCW models do get a fair level of kit as standard to partly justify that price tag, including a rear-view camera, all-round parking sensors, climate control, heated seats and a centre armrest. Nav with Apple CarPlay displays on an 8.8-inch screen, leather sports seats, keyless operation, cruise control and AEB are all standard.
In the right situation the Countryman JCW is surprisingly fun for an SUV, but we wish its operating window was that bit broader. If it offered a more forgiving ride, slightly more space and a fresher-feeling cabin with more modern technology, it would be a more appealing machine. The style tweaks have helped, and the new digital dash is a step in the right direction, but while the Countryman JCW is fast, it doesn’t hit the heights we know MINI is capable of.